Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The frequent trade-off of "politeness" and "civility" for clarity, accuracy, and exposing important truths. How to find the socially optimal balance?

-->I'm currently in the middle of a discussion with Nick Rowe on his and Stephen Gordon's blog regarding positional/context/prestige externalities and their effect on saving. Nick noted that he thought, but was not sure, that Greg Mankiw had a post stating these externalities did not affect the saving rate. In my reply, I wrote, "...but Mankiw has a shameful record of constantly intentionally misleading for the right.", and, "or Mankiw is describing it in a deliberately misleading way, which is par for the course for him."
In Nick's reply he wrote, "And you really should not make those sort of accusations, please. It's part of the very bad decline in civility, that I associate with recent US politics, and certain bloggers I won't name. "If someone disagrees with me, he must be lying, and a paid shill". That sort of argument is the first step towards totalitarianism."
Ok, difficult, unpleasant issue, but it's very important, so we should discuss it.
First, I should make very clear that I don't always think, "If someone disagrees with me, he must be lying, and a paid shill". I usually think they're just making an honest mistake, or I am, in which case if I think the odds are that they are right, I change my opinion. I only think, or am willing to say, they're lying or a paid shill if there's very good evidence that they are.
For example, suppose a Harvard Climatologist says the Earth is flat or that carbon accumulation in the atmosphere has absolutely zero effect on global warming, and that these false assertions please a political party he favors and/or is highly paid by. What am I to think? I know he's saying something that's not true. And I know being a Harvard Climatologist that unless he just had a serious head injury, he knows it's not true, but he said it anyway. I don't want to use the L-word, because so many people say you're not supposed to, and it can cause a lot of problems, but that is the definition of the L-word, knowingly saying something that's untrue.
And note that in this case, yes, the public would know anyway that the Earth is flat is a lie, but there are many things that a climatologist, or any expert, can say which can sound plausible to the general public, but which a fellow expert would know can only be intentional misleading, or lying. Should that fellow expert remain silent on the intentionality of the first expert's untruth? You can't say he should just point out why this untruth is untrue, and then it won't matter if he tells people that the person who said it has a record of regularly intentionally misleading. 

The reason is because the messenger, and her credibility, does matter. It's not just the message. The world is too complicated and advanced for that. The message itself can be very strong and convincing to you, but in such an advanced and complicated world, and with an area that you, as a member of the general public, are not expert in, there's still often a substantial probability that there's something you're missing, and the message is, in fact, not correct, or not completely correct. The more credible the messenger, the lower the probability that that's the case, and vice-versa. So it is valuable for the public in important decision making, like voting, to know if messengers are serial intentional misleaders for causes that they don't consider good.
So what are you to do?
As economists we're trained to do cost-benefit analyses, and to do something if its benefits outweigh the costs. In finance, a close cousin or sub-field of economics, the foundation is the Net Present Value rule, which is the same thing applied to financial problems. So let's try to do this with the situation where there is very good evidence that a person or group is regularly intentionally misleading for a cause that we think is bad and harmful, or extremely harmful.
If you write that they have a history of intentionally misleading, or intentionally grossly misleading, then a cost, or con, is that this can create anger and other bad feelings with the other party and with some members of the public. This can make it harder to communicate and work with them. With today's Republicans it is unlikely that we will ever get more than a few in the entire congress voting for any kind of intelligent economic stimulus program, but by being largely polite and friendly nonetheless, Republican and Democratic congress people can at least sit in the same room, handle the administrative details that have to be done, and talk about the issues where there is some real chance of at least some meaningful interchange, learning, and cooperation, and people don't start doing things out of spite, even if they think it will hurt the country.
Generally, civility and politeness, or what is often called civility and politeness, can help to keep lines of communication open, can help people work together more productively, and can prevent people from doing things to get back at their rivals even if they know it hurts themselves and the greater good. It can also make work, or any human interaction, a lot more pleasant. Moreover, lack of civility, especially if it's really bad, can intimidate people, and discourage them from communicating. It can stifle discussion and learning.
So there are very important pros to civility and politeness. Now let's talk about the costs, or cons, of civility and politeness, or what is often called civility and politeness, especially if it's taken too far, or taken to mean being extremely unwilling to say anything that could be construed as an insult no matter how true it is, and no matter how important it is for the public to know.
If a person or organization is constantly lying. Or intentionally misleading while saying things that can maybe, by some definition, be considered to be literally true (for example Bill Clinton's famous public statement, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"), then if we can never say that they are less credible, that you should be skeptical and on guard because they constantly intentionally mislead, it makes it easier for them to mislead the public.
And often this is far from trivial. If more people had been willing to directly and clearly point out the outright lies and intentional misleading of George W. Bush and the Republican machine in 2000 they easily might have lost that election. Vagueness and fuzziness and not being willing to clearly and directly state when they were being misleading, or intentionally misleading, in the name of "civility" or "politeness" or "professionalness" made it less clear to the public what was going on.
Directness, clarity, accuracy, and precision in critiquing one's rivals, their ideas, what they say, is often considered uncivil and impolite. But if you're vague, and sort of allude to, to be polite and civil, often many people will not understand your critique, or debunking, well. It will just be a lot less clear, and their understanding and decision making will be worse as a result.
Likewise, if you don't say certain very important and relevant truths, like in the Angry Bear post, "Cato Disinformation", because you think it's uncivil or impolite to, then much of the public will not know these very important and relevant truths, and their understanding and decision making will be worse as a result. If the decisions in question are huge, like whether to elect George W. Bush, whether to elect enough Republicans to the senate to allow them to stop the measures which will prevent a long wrenching recession or depression, then the costs of being "polite" and "civil" – to that extreme – may be monumental, and the benefits minute by comparison.
Look at what George W. Bush and the Republican machine have done to this country over the last generation, largely aided by the stealth and obscuring they get from what's often called "civility" and "politeness". Do you really still think we should, as an unbending rule, never, ever, in any case, directly and clearly tell people when, on important issues, a person or organization is intentionally misleading or outright lying, that they are, and that it is a regular occurrence, so be careful, keep a skeptical eye, and look to see if more credible sources are backing them up?
I think sometimes we should be willing to say to the public that this person or organization regularly intentionally misleads, even if it will look uncivil to some, and sometimes we shouldn't. It depends on the time, place, and situation. If these are such that the costs outweigh the benefits, we shouldn't. But there are times when the costs of being what many people call "civil" are great, much greater than the benefits.
I'm all for pleases and thank-yous and avoiding swearing and so-on, because it has a clear benefit and it's basically costless. It doesn't fuzzy up understanding or hide important truths, but I think some people's definition of civil is too extreme. It's beyond the point where marginal cost equals marginal benefit.

With regard to the specific catalyst for this post. I do regret using the word shameful in, "...but Mankiw has a shameful record of constantly intentionally misleading for the right." That's a case where the benefit did not outweigh the cost, even in a relatively informal, "dinner conversation"-like venue like the comments section of a blog. Moreover, I'm really not at all sure that Greg Mankiw's reasons are shameful. Like many people, I'm puzzled as to why he says and does the things he does. Maybe he's not intentionally misleading for personal gain; maybe he's just an extreme economic Libertarian, who sincerely thinks it's worth having far lower growth in wealth, science, medicine, and total societal utility, far more human suffering and far less human happiness, to avoid giving up even small amounts of personal economic freedom. Maybe he thinks he can affect positive change to the Republican Party better by staying on the inside than by being kicked out of the upper levels. And to stay in he has to say things which please those in control.
I don't know; his reasons are puzzling and unclear. But I'm quite sure that he regularly intentionally misleads for the positions of the Republicans. As a start, see the Economist's View posts "Honest Brokers", "Economists, Ideology, and Stimulus", "Can Economists Be Trusted?" "Are There Ever Any Wrong Answers in Economics?" , and my post "The latest disinformation from Mankiw" . The whole thing, though, is a difficult issue. There are times when it's an easy call that the benefits far outweigh the costs of saying as politely as reasonable that some one, or some group, regularly intentionally misleads, but there are other times when it's a tough call.
I am putting together a response to Nick's most recent reply on the savings effects of positional/context/prestige externalities. He makes a good point, and brings up a valid first order factor. I just don't think it's the only relevant factor. There's more to the story. I hope to have my response to this up in the comments section of Nick's blog in the next day or two.


Nick Rowe said...

Hi Richard:

I'm really pleased to see this post.

First off, I think I over-reacted a bit in the comments of WCI. Sorry.

I over-reacted partly because the general deterioration of tone in economics/political blogs really bothers me. And partly because I was frustrated because you didn't seem to be hearing my arguments about positional goods and savings.

There are really 3 issues here:
1. Civility in general (did you see me post a couple of months back on WCI?)
2. Greg Mankiw in particular. My view is that what Greg Mankiw has been saying is legit (which doesn't mean I agree with everything he posts), and that some criticism of him (and others) comes close to trying to bully/silence dissenters. (Let me declare my interest: I was a co-author on the Canadian edition of the Mankiw Intro text, but quit (for irrelevant personal reasons), and only once met him, 25 years ago.)
3. The positional goods/savings question. We really need to get that one sorted out. It ought to be solvable. One (or both?) of us is just wrong.

Nick Rowe

Richard H. Serlin said...

Thanks Nick,

No hard feelings, of course. I will be getting up my response on the positional goods/savings question sometime over the next few days. I'm just kind of bogged down with other things now.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

I didn't more than a couple paragraphs of this very long post, but Daniel Davies has a very succinct description of this. He calls it the fallacy of giving known liars the benefit of the doubt.

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